Who, and What, to Watch?

O'Malley's weekly game preview asks seven pressing questions that will help determine if Notre Dame can escape Tallahassee at 7-0.

1. Will They Finally Miss Russell?

Through six games, Notre Dame's pass defense has registered at least one interception in each and 10 in total -- the latter number more than the entire regular season allotment of the 2013 Irish.

The team's cornerbacks are aggressive, confident, and talented. The safeties have emerged as playmakers, especially coming downhill, and nickel Matthias Farley has been outstanding defending the flats.

All of the above occurred without the perceived pre-season best of the bunch, junior cornerback Keivarae Russell. But another key component has been missing from the Irish pass defense's equation:

A great quarterback on the other side of scrimmage.

To be blunt, no passer faced Notre Dame to date ranks within light years of Florida State's Jameis Winston.

Saturday night, that reality might bring to light what the loss of Russell means vs. the elite.

Look for the Seminoles to attack Farley with seams and corner routes -- a role meant to be filled by Riggs with Russell and cornerback Cole Luke slated to hold down the perimeter on passing downs.

Tackling after the catch becomes paramount.

2.) Will Florida State's defensive front awaken?

Seminoles DT Eddie Goldman, coupled with versatile DE/DT Mario Edwards will be pitted Saturday night vs. the still-developing Irish interior trio of center Matt Hegarty, former tackle Steven Elmer, and former center, Nick Martin.

The threesome was overwhelmed at times vs. the best defense it faced (Stanford), and failed to provide a punch against the next best group (Michigan). The alignment has changed since the Wolverines and was just getting its sea legs vs. the Cardinal. Notre Dame's offensive line has improved its output each week since.

But few players are as explosive when dialed-in as are Goldman and Edwards. It seems likely they'll be locked and loaded Saturday night.

Hegarty, Martin, and Elmer must put forth their best collective effort of the season to date.

Mike Mayock noted of the offensive front last week during Notre Dame's uneven 50-point explosion against defenseless North Carolina, "They can't protect their quarterback on a consistent basis."

We'll find out for sure when the 'Noles' heretofore disappointing pass rush comes knocking.

3.) Will rush lane integrity trouble the Irish again?

Last Saturday in South Bend, North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams had his way with the Irish defense, gashing them on a variety of designed draws, read-option keepers, and sprint outs behind a phalanx of blockers.

Included in that performance were second-half gains up the gut of eight yards on 3rd-and-7, 28 yards and 41 yards on a pair of third quarter draws. Previously, Williams found room for an up-the-middle escape for a three-yard touchdown.

Though Williams is a fare more accomplished runner than is Winston, Notre Dame's lack of lane discipline against the Tar Heels was nonetheless troubling. "It was the defensive line's mental errors," said junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day. "Things we could have cleaned up easily. Miscommunication from the field to the sideline. It's about playing under control and knowing who you're next to. Getting a feel for where the O-Line is sliding."

Said head coach Brian Kelly, "At times we were spying Williams, and he's just, he beat our spy on a couple of occasions. When you have an outstanding guy in there, it's hard for defensive tackles to maintain that pocket awareness when that guy's back there.  I mean, the athletes at the quarterback position are difficult to keep in there, and Winston is one of those as well."

Winston won't run as often as Williams, but the Irish can't afford to let him gain crucial first-downs -- in 3rd-and-long situations -- escaping up the gut.

4.) Will The New Center Be Exposed?

No, not Notre Dame's Matt Hegarty who Saturday will make his sixth career start, but Florida State redshirt-freshman Ryan Hoefield. Hoefield made his first start in place of injured pre-season All-American Austin Barron last week at Syracuse, helping pave the way for 165 rushing yards.

But Hoefield could have his hands full with the junior tandem of Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones -- he could be asked to tussle with Jones without help from standout guard Josue Mathias and Tre' Jackson -- both of whom might need help to handle Day, a Tasmanian Devil along the Irish interior.

Crucial third-down stops are the key to Saturday's contest for both defenses -- Notre Dame needs to take advantage of the only potential weak-link along a Florida State front that features (at least) three future pros for a unit that has combined for a staggering 133 career starts.

5.) Will Golson's Gaffes Continue?

To be blunt, if they do -- that is, if Golson turns it over at least twice as he has in each of the last three contests (nine in that span overall) -- you don't have to keep reading.

Florida State will roll Notre Dame.

But if Golson returns to his early-season form (three games, no turnovers, 11 touchdowns produced via pass and run), the Irish will put up more than 30 points Saturday night.

How much more than 30 will decide their fate. Florida State has never scored fewer than 34 with Winston at the controls.

6.) Bang Your Head?

You see it here each week. More than 30 rushes = an Irish victory. 40 out of 44 outings during the Kelly era. Fail to eclipse 30 rushes? They're 3-11.

The Irish have won 26 consecutive when they burrow for more than 30 carries. Their last loss? Florida State to conclude the 2011 season.

Notre Dame might not make it 27 straight if it rushes the ball more than 30 times Saturday night. Staying ahead of the chains and avoiding no-gain plays (incomplete passes) won't be enough alone to win in Tallahassee, as Florida State's offense could be too much to overcome.

But I guarantee the Irish lose if Kelly & Co. abandon the only style that's proven consistently effective throughout his tenure:

-- 2014: 6-0 with more than 30 rushes
-- 2013: 9-0 vs. 0-4 with less

-- 2012: 11-0 vs. 1-1 with less
-- 2011: 7-2 vs. 1-3 with less
-- 2010: 7-2 vs. 1-3 with less

7.) Chopped Down?

Six games down, six wins, no hostile environments overcome. No crowds that could be considered remotely anti-Irish.

Saturday brings Doak Campbell Stadium:

Renegade. The incessant War Chant and accompanying Tomahawk Chop. A drunken prime-time crowd out for Irish blood. A collection of Florida State talent more than capable of providing it.

How will Notre Dame's youth-filled squad respond?

"This group does not strike me as one where they're going to go down to Florida State and be affected by the crowd," said Kelly. "Our problems have been self-inflicted. So I'm more concerned about our self-inflicted wounds than I am what may happen because of the environment. They're a pretty focused group on what they need to do. We just need to make sure that we don't make the mistakes we've made over the last few weeks."

Added senior nickel Matthias Farley, "I think it's fun being in a hostile environment, a lot of energy, a lot of buzz is generated. I think it's been instilled in us that when we're on the road, everyone is going to hate you. When you understand that going in you can feed off that energy."

Asked if he thought he'd be able to hear Irish fans in enemy territory, Farley noted, "I think so. I think we travel better than anybody in the country."

And Finally, our weekly -- Can These Five Continue to Rise? Isaac Rochell, Cole Luke, Tarean Folston, Ronnie Stanley, and Steven Elmer...

Notre Dame will play its best game of the season to date Saturday night. Look for the Irish to have a chance to win it in the fourth quarter (if not the at the end). But Florida State when motivated is on another level -- one the Irish will reach in 2015.

Florida State 37 Notre Dame 30


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